Netflix’s new documentary tells the definitive story of the female astronauts who reached for the stars in the 1950s and 1960s but were unfortunately ahead of their time
‘Mercury 13’ tells the story of the women grounded at the dawn of the race to space
It wasn’t just the boys who had the right stuff back at the dawn of the American space race. The girls had it in spades, too. Some even tested higher than the male wannabe rocket jockeys during the rigorous physiological training – but ultimately lacked the political oomph and the female-friendly cultural tides of the modern era to carry them into a Mercury capsule.
Project Mercury, of course, was the moniker of the fabled “man in space” programme that began in 1958 for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). The men it chose to inaugurate the United States spaceflight – all military test pilots – became known as The Mercury Seven, and piloted solo missions from May 1961 through May 1963.
Resplendent in their silvery pressure suits, with buzzed haircuts and abundant machismo, they soon blasted onto the cover of just about every major glossy magazine of the era as their exploits captured the public’s imagination in both America and beyond.
Female astronauts dreams dashed
This Friday, however, Netflix lights up an even better story with Mercury 13, a new documentary film on the female astronauts who were also tested for spaceflight, only to see their dreams dashed when they were denied their day in orbit.
The film hails from British-born director David Sington, who cut his journalistic teeth with the BBC World Service in the 1980s before moving on to indulge his passion for all things science – by producing award-winning documentaries for the BBC, as well as for PBS and its acclaimed Nova series.
Mercury 13 also brings to light some amusing and rare news clips, from a time when the female astronaut trainees were kept out of sight and out of mind – well away from the glare of the media, behind firmly closed doors.
“Why do you think there’s a need for women in space,” a not-so-open-minded TV newsman asks, in a vintage black-and-white interview, to which his female subject assertively replies: “Well, it’s the same thing as: ‘Is there a need for men in space?’ If we’re going to send a human being into space, we should send the one most qualified.”
But such logic did not compute with Nasa brass in its patriarchal heyday, regardless of qualifications.
The 'right stuff' but the wrong gender
In all, 24 female pilots were selected to undergo physiological screening tests at the same time as the original Mercury Seven astronauts, in a private programme, with the implied promise that Nasa would send the best of them into the heavens.
“Thirteen of them passed and, in some cases, performed better than the men,” according to the documentary. “They had the ‘right stuff’ but were, unfortunately, the wrong gender.”
Underneath the obsession of the space race that gripped America, the Mercury 13 women were aviation pioneers who emerged thirsty for a new frontier, but whose time would have to wait.” Many of the now-elderly space pioneers appear in the film – and you can still hear the resentment, or regret, in their voices about the raw deal they got. “This was a secret program,” says Jerrie Cobb, 87. “I was raring to go. There was at that time a lot of prejudice. ‘Women astronauts – what a ridiculous idea!’”
And Cobb should know. By her 30th birthday, she was one of a handful of female executives in aviation, had logged 7,000 hours of flying time and held three aviation world records.
The 'good old boy' network wins
When Nasa got wind of the women, adds her Mercury 13 colleague and accomplished aviator Wally Funk: “they did not want this programme, pure and simple. It was a good old boy network – and there was no such thing as a good old girl network… [But] I wanted to be up there, that’s part of me.”
Funk, now 79, found herself earthbound, despite scoring higher than the celebrated astronaut John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the Earth. However, she dusted herself off, and moved on to achieve a life of impressive “firsts” – as the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the first civilian flight instructor for the US army, and the first Federal Aviation Agency inspector.
Many believe that, were it not for Funk’s age at the time, she would have become America’s first female space shuttle pilot and commander, an honour which ultimately went to Nasa’s Eileen Collins in 1995.
Mercury 13 is available for streaming on Netflix from Friday